I am childless by choice. I am not childless because of lack of opportunity or failure of circumstance to enable me to attempt conception, childbirth and motherhood. I have consciously chosen not to have children, and by extension have made choices in my life that eliminated motherhood as one of its characteristics. I have no regrets about these choices, and don’t consider any of them to be “settling” or requiring sympathy or pity. In fact, I consider those choices to be a big part of my success and happiness.
So, this article from the BBC Magazine sparked no small amount of ire and indignation in me. This category of “childless by circumstance” is insulting and belittling to women who are childless by choice, women and families who choose to foster or adopt, and women whose own efforts to have children have been successful. It purports that child-bearing and motherhood are entitlements rather than privileges, rights of womanhood rather than gifts of biology and luck.
Particularly galling are the broad-brush statements: “All the childless women I know feel very self-conscious about it…”. More correct might be that they are made to feel self-conscious about it by other women who feel wronged or cheated somehow by their own childless status. Or: “…I had become a sort of social pariah as a single childless woman.” Perhaps when someone lets something like child-status or marital status become their defining characteristic – the cross they bear for everyone to see and hear about – they make their friends uncomfortable to the point where they are excluded.
As a childless-by-choice woman, I have experienced misplaced sympathy, bewilderment, and even suspicion – the suggestion that I’m odd for not wanting to do what so many others want (or – shudder – what women are supposed to do). When I was still of a child-bearing age and state, I was sometimes told by well-meaning parent friends – those with adorable babies and precocious toddlers, trying to tempt me in to motherhood – that I would regret it if I didn’t “take advantage” of my childbearing years. Some actually said that it was selfish of me, a healthy and successful women, to not provide for a child; indeed, to deny the opportunity of life to another being. To most, I demurred with a “perhaps” or “we’ll see”, but to those I could speak to openly, I said that I felt it would be selfish of me to bring a child into the world that I wasn’t completely sure I wanted – that it would be cruel of me to live with the possibility that I might one day think or say, “I wish I’d never had you”. In fact, I consider my choice to stay childless as one of the least selfish things I could do. Of all of the choices one can make in life, having a child is one that you need to be 100% sure of. You can have no regrets with this, as it is a choice that you cannot change, and any regrets you have will be felt and paid for by your child – the one person in the scenario who had no choice in the matter. If I did ever get to the point where I regretted my choice to remain childless, well, the only person who would pay for that regret would be me, and I was (and still am) okay with that bargain.
But childless-by-circumstance says, to me, that you would have had children but for things beyond your control, with the implication that you’ve been denied something – that motherhood is a right rather than a privilege, an entitlement of being a women (something that grossly undermines the whole notion of women’s equality by implying that women can’t be complete without having children).
First off, conception and having children is a function of biology. Nothing about it is guaranteed. With today’s modern medicine, fertility and conception can be influenced, manipulated and enhanced but never guaranteed, no matter how much money you can or do spend on it (the implication that you should be able to expect a “return on investment” for money spent on IVF is a sad reflection of one’s values). Like so many things in life, we have the opportunity to try, but no guarantee of success.
Second and more importantly, you need to consider all of your own choices and criteria and how those influence whether or not you conceive or have children, and then take responsibility for those choices. Your choices create your circumstances. Yes, sometimes the actions of others affect our lives, but most often it is our own actions that are responsible for where and what we are. For example, if you set “being in a stable partnership” as a criteria for the circumstances for child-bearing, and then you never find yourself in a stable-enough partnership to even attempt conception, that is not a circumstance – that is your choice.
Lastly, the ultimate goal for women who want children should be the lifelong experience of motherhood, not conception (an event of minutes’ duration, no matter how good), pregnancy (9 months, give or take a few weeks) and childbirth (no more than 72 hours; usually much less). When those who consider themselves childless-by-circumstance dismiss adoption as a consideration (and, as in this article, consider it an insulting suggestion), they indicate clearly that their objective is not motherhood or family, and denigrate the worth of adoptive and foster mothers everywhere.
For me, I am happy being childless-by-choice. Whatever maternal desires I have, I shower on my goddaughter and others to whom I’m an honourary aunt. Could I have had children? Would I have been a good mother, or enjoyed motherhood? We’ll never know, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I take responsibility for those choices, make the best life I can for myself and those around me, and value what I have, instead of what I don’t.